It wasn’t a very good year: 1938 – Hitler’s Gamble by Giles Macdonogh


Considering the centrality of “Munich” to American thinking on foreign policy – and the centrality of the war that followed to what America has become – there’s an argument for considering 1938 to be as important to our understanding of ourselves as other American milestone years – 1776, 1787, 1860, 1929, 1945, and so on.

What makes 1938 unique on such a list is our own absence from the critical scenes. The effect in Giles MacDonogh’s month by month, sometimes day by day and hour by hour chronicle is a portrait of American leadership traced out as though in a photographic negative.

The cloudy, black and gray surface reveals the following: A world without American leadership is a world that can fall prey to the “gambles” of upstart second-raters and maniacs. A world without American leadership is a world in which secretive, shifting alliances, immoral deals, territorial larceny, and brute force lead, step by step, to chaos and conflagration. It’s a world in which everyone can choose to look the other way when a monster and his brood are appeased, and appeased again, at the expense of races, religions, and nations. It’s also a world in which anyone can get in on the action while the getting seems good, not daring to think that he might be next.

In other words, 1938 marks the last historical moment up to the present day during which other nations could pretend to solve matters of great importance without significant American involvement. For nearly three more years, the U.S. avoided formal entry into the developing conflict, but the last pretense that the world could take care of itself on its own ended a few months into 1939. Soon, the argument for acting “while dangers gather,” instead of waiting for whatever day of infamy, would have 60 – 100 million direct casualties and a rubble of nations weighing on its side.

That cataclysm is the other “negative subject” of this chronicle, which, like many histories focusing on Nazi Germany, makes for fascinating yet agonizing reading. At the beginning of the year, Adolf Hitler was Chancellor in a rightwing coalition government. The country and the National Socialist order spent the year on the verge of bankruptcy and economic chaos. German borders were still defined by the Versailles Treaty, and Germany’s range of action was constrained by, supposedly, firm commitments of the “Great Powers.” The military establishment, still dominated by aristocrats and a special target of the Nazi power structure, spent much of the year planning and preparing a coup. According to much evidence, and for good reason, the German masses were uncertain and fearful, and still capable of resistance.

By the end of the year, following a series of successful, highly improvisational acts of acrobatic brinksmanship on the world stage, Hitler was the unchallenged leader of an empire at dawn set for further expansion, the nation having already absorbed and to some extent exhausted its newly acquired financial, material, and human resources. The internal opposition had been silenced and humiliated. The officers around General Ludwig Beck put plans for rebellion, which at times had been mere days from irrevocable execution, on indefinite hold (many of the same conspirators would be involved in the Valkyrie plot six years later).

In the meantime – and this story takes up a large portion of 1938 – the oppression of the Jews and the suppression of dissent escalated. For the first time, a policy that foisted second-class status on law-abiding citizens took on a literally mass murderous shape, and in a widening transnational orbit, thanks to the collaboration of allies and opportunists. Someone should have been able to do the math: Millions of Jews to be forcibly dispossessed, under orders of expulsion from a continent increasingly under Nazi domination… minus thousands of spots grudgingly made available for immigration around the world. The final solution of this simple equation was something that either no one was willing to imagine or, a much darker thought, very many people, not just German-speaking people, were happy to write off on their own personal balance sheets.

Another piece of inexorable math might have been less obvious, but was critical to all that followed. The fascist economic system, contrary to the PR, was a total failure. Without larceny and enslavement on an international scale, it couldn’t survive. Combine economic compulsion with a culture of self-superiority and an ideology that celebrated the remorseless use of force, and war was inevitable.

These equations also expose certain schools of historical revisionism for the dreary obscenities they are. By 1938 there was already ample moral and legal justification to act against Hitler’s Germany. There was also opportunity: The regime was vulnerable to the point of desperation. Nothing succeeds like success, however, and the world, by cooperation and by omission, gave the Nazis one triumph and rescue after another. By the end of the year, the message sent and received was “barbarism works” and “no one can stop it.”

For 70 years, we’ve been committed to sending the opposite messages, and have mostly succeeded, but are we still doing the math?

23 comments on “It wasn’t a very good year: 1938 – Hitler’s Gamble by Giles Macdonogh

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  1. Gilder writes a similar story in “The Israel Test.” Rather than bringing peace, each withdrawal and each concession has taught Arabs that terror pays. The Soviet Union was held in check using a system called ‘game theory’ largely developed by Jewish refugees from Nazism. According to game theory, the terrorists are perfectly rational, and it is the notion that we must remedy their grievances which is irrational. Peace comes after one group/nation wins the war, not as result of one concession after another.

    I think we may now be on the edge of tragedy as we were in 1938. We are ruled by a President and a Congress which abandons both principles and friends, and concedes sacred ground to leftists and fascist Islamic thugs. The autocrats who dominate Russians, Chinese, Latin Americana, Syrians, Iranians lick their chops at our abject apologies and our new found love of weakness.

    Can we muster the political will to reverse this before time runs out, and our world descends into another world war? If not, it may well be a war which we could loose this time.

  2. Time ran out for the English after Munich, Rex, and, for us, after Pearl Harbor. Many of the games being played out with various triggers, scenarios and outcomes would make you cry, Rex. The famines, death marches and death camps and killing fields are not necessarily a thing of the past, my frem. It all starts with hubris, and with power grabs, demagogues making promises, and all our Founders’ notions of freedom and property and honor and prosperity blown away.

    This is why I don’t understand Colin’s battle with any of our all too few modern day Thomas Paynes who are doing all they can to sound the alarm and rally us all around core principles under threat.

  3. I’m not convinced that our relative success in containing the Soviet Union – a nation exhausted after it did most of the heavy lifting against Hitler itself , and whose leaders were grateful to die in bed – shows that the world is safer under our wing . We didn’t prevent the Cultural Revolution, or the Killing Fields, or the Rwanda genocide. I suppose you could argue that things would have been even worse without us, but that is informed supposition. Conversely, say we had attacked the Red Army in 1946? Would we have saved the planet from two generations of Communist tyranny or shattered our own domestic consensus and precipitated another isolationist sulk?
    And suppose we had stiffened the Anglo-French spine in 1938, leaving a tenuous equilibrium abroad. Would we – could we – have embarked on a worldwide mission with the other Great Powers still calling most of the shots? Even the most civilized Germans chafed under Versailles, Japan controlled large chunks of China, Russia was ever paranoid. Again, the assurance that a bloodbath would not have erupted is just that. Moreover, we were in no mood to reorder things then precisely because we had not yet suffered or witnessed the frightful carnage that engendered such resolve – or more accurately that would overcome our revulsion at the round of 1914-18.

    Well, enough of channeling Pat Buchanan, Ron Paul and Grumpy. Gotta go check the crawl space.

  4. “A world without American leadership is a world in which secretive, shifting alliances, immoral deals, territorial larceny, and brute force lead, step by step, to chaos and conflagration. It’s a world in which everyone can choose to look the other way when a monster and his brood are appeased, and appeased again, at the expense of races, religions, and nations.”

    With all due respect C.K. that’s not how it works. You’re using a historically brief period as an example, to posit the existence of a world in which there’s no ‘alpha dog’ nation. Were such to exist, it would be exactly as you posit but such cannot be.

    When chimpanzee and gorilla groups lose their alpha male, within a very brief period of time a new alpha male emerges. Most interestingly, I believe I recall that the researchers reported that the testosterone levels of the ‘replacement’ alpha male rose quickly to rival the previous holder of the alpha male position.

    Someone has to dominate, if America retreats, the primary candidates for ascendancy into super-power status are of course Russia and China. The Islamic world’s fanaticism and petro-dollars makes them a dark horse in the running. In time, one of these groups would emerge as the new alpha male.

  5. Zolt:
    James Joyce/History is a nightmare from which we haven’t woken up
    HG Wells/History is something we are doomed to repeat.

    Your Tom Paines will soon be demagogues and the war will come anyway,and from an entirely unexpected place like WW1 starting in Sarajevo.

  6. @ Geoffrey Britain:
    Eventually, GB, the world may gain a replacement hegemon, but getting there could be a lot of fun, and if two or three aspirants believe themselves deserving, the bidding may go through the roof. With modern weapons, it wouldn’t take much time at all to make people yearn for the happy, innocent days of Nanking, Stalingrad, and Hiroshima. What I describe in the passage your quote, and that the book describes, is what happens when an aggressive, rising power meets declining ones.

    @ Seth Halpern:
    Things might have gone well, too. A post-coup Germany might have developed along the lines of Chile under Pinochet, provided a bulwark against Bolshevism, remained reluctant for many years to risk its strength and resource vulnerabilities against its neighbors and the great powers.

    History doesn’t reveal its alternatives, and, at a certain level of analysis, it gets hard to see how anything could have turned out much different from how it actually did, all the way up to the line I’m typingcutting and pasting right now. I think we have to remain reluctant to decrybless what was , simply out of fear of what might have been anyway. The Nazis were thugs, criminals, and aggressors even before they were genocidal mass murderers, they were vulnerable in 1938, and, instead of standing their way, Great Britain and the rest of the world including us, effectively encouraged them, and not just at Munich. The alternative wouldn’t have had to be a worldwide peace crusade – maybe just a bit of realism and stubbornness.

    As for attacking the Red Army in 1946 – that wasn’t remotely in the cards for us. Speculating further about the Cultural Revolution and the Cambodian genocide gets you into all sorts of games within games. Sure, Pax Americana has been hugely imperfect, but hugely successful compared to the recent alternatives – for us especially, and overall for the world.

  7. Commentary today touches on the fallacy of the zero sum game, which Mister Peanut and his avid crew adhere to. Animals live in a zero sum kill or be killed world, in which there is only one alpha.

    Gilder has spent much of his productive life explaining how economies can thrive under free market capitalism and how everyone is lifted up. Unlike poker, the game of capitalism involves multiple winners, and the pot grows, not from other players’ money, but, from the innovations and enhanced productivity which capitalism can bring.

    The real danger to the world is, if the last bastions of capitalism are destroyed from without and from within, we humans will then again be subjected to the zero sum, dog eat dog, kill or be killed world of our distant ancestors. Hitler hated the Jews because they were good at capitalism, and, being evil, crazy, charismatic and fortunately not a very smart general, Hitler felt threatened by capitalism, a system in which no easy promises are made and in which there is no pretense of certainty. Capitalism allows for and welcomes genius and novelty and all the elements of progress and prosperity. We have been among the few to follow the biblical injunction against envy, and, instead, we capitalists have celebrated and championed success and the wealth success brings to us all.

    We are in danger because too many are too ready to feed a new political class which is dead set on our destruction through their wasteful and corrupt confiscation of our capital.

  8. That conversation I had with that Argentine historian, who I was surprised when he referred positively to Jonah Goldberg, no one else
    in my neighborhood, knows who he is, and needless to say, a big
    admirer of Sarah, remarked on that seemingly long ago election day.
    He had seen the chiliastic left and the right, tear out the center of his nation,over a forty year period, he left after the Proceso junta, he agreed with Churchill’s aphorism about democracy “worst form of of government, except for all the others” and fit classical liberalism in that same place

    Russia is like the proverbial ‘Norwegian blue parrot’ it’s a dying nation
    it just doesn’t know it yet. If it’s very lucky it can return to it’s borders back in the 16th Century, before the Tatars but I don’t think
    so. China is a formidable contestant for the prize of hegemon, but
    it’s economic system, makes AIG seem transparent. The post AGW
    dystopia “Mirrored Heavens”, has it falling prey to a sixty year civil
    war, which seems more than a bit unlikely, but without a kernel of consent, warlordism with a PLA flavor sounds likely

  9. Zoltan:

    It’s worse than a Zero Sum,it’s a shrinking pie,the pie expanded for decades,mainly thru Inflation,but it did grow,and now,like all systems do after a big expansion,it’s contracting,starting July,2007. One of the things we debate here,is whether the expansion which started in 1971,was a fatal expansion.
    The other thing you need to remember is that Government always always always trumps Capitalism.

  10. zoltan newberry wrote:

    This is why I don’t understand Colin’s battle with any of our all too few modern day Thomas Paynes who are doing all they can to sound the alarm and rally us all around core principles under threat.

    They’re not Tom Paines, Z, IMO. They’re offering dead ends, nonsense, and falsehoods in too many cases, and not much good comes of that in the end. Anyway, I’m not battling with them, little ol’ me. I’m just calling things as I see ’em, tracking down what’s interesting to me, especially the differences whose existence implies new and potentially useful things to be learned.

    Plus I now have an active and voluble anti-fan club of proudly closed-minded HotAirians. Who could ask for anything more?

  11. @ Rex Caruthers:
    Your pessimism is too extreme, Rex. Even if it’s all a magic act, life expectancies and the carrying capacity of world economies have greatly expanded. If the dollars don’t measure it right, there’s something wrong with the dollars. Technological progress has made life better in many virtually un-measurable ways, as well. Unless you really do hate life and everything that the simple and the complicated folk alike, with relatively few exceptions, associate with better living, something’s been going righter.

  12. Why is that, those who try to determine the taxonomy of ‘this rough
    beast that slouches” toward mine and your town, are to be dismissed as cranks.

    The fact is the progressive solution really hasn’t worked,
    the Fed is as accurate as a passel of blind dart throwers in gauging
    our economic condition, social security and other programs are unsustainable in Keynes ‘long run’ yet they have a growing constituency. I do disagree with Beck on at least one point, both
    Russia and China, didn’t ‘transform’ in the last generation, they reverted, the first to the modified Czarist state, with the siloviki as the new Boyars, China back to the Chiang regime, with the PLA.

  13. Good post as usual Colin. And good comments. It sounds like a good book.

    Of course it’s unfortunately in the “coulda, woulda, shoulda” realm.

    “Someone should have been able to do the math”

    Churchill had done the math on Hitler well before 1938, and he was by 1938 patiently building up a cadre of supporters; but even Churchill was unable to sell the British public on what would have been necessary to act on the math.

    And, your argument (or the books argument) that Hitler and his Nazis were on the edge of economic and political disaster before the Anschluss can easily be seen as an argument against aggressive action since it says their movement might well have collapsed without aggressive action, or one of the many assassins who went after Hitler might have scored a hit.

    This is, in fact, a variant of the argument we hear in opposition to action against the Iranian regime today, namely that outside action might invalidate the opposition that could bring down the regime on their own. That’s unsurprising since it’s actually a pretty powerful argument.

  14. One wonders how accidental the absence was, FDR was one of the last remaining major figures of the Wilson administration, yet he helped
    demolish it’s status, by cooperating with the Nye Committee, before then, isolationism was not so great a force (one of the junior staffers
    on that panel, who was soon to rise in the Government bureaucracy
    was Alger Hiss, first in the AAA and later at State. Later actions like
    the ‘court packing scheme’ did little to engender comity, the Hatch Act arose out of the blatant electioneering that he was engaging it
    against who he considered his foe, who weren’t abroad for the most part

  15. narciso wrote:

    The fact is the progressive solution really hasn’t worked,

    The progressive solution – what’s that? A final solution? Utopia? Surely there many utopians and cracked visionaries among the progressives, but still we’ve made progress. Society remains dreadfully imperfect. What kind of criticism against progressivism is that for a conservative to make? Would strict constitutionalism have ushered in utopia in its place?

    @ Sully:
    In hindsight, the Brits didn’t need aggressive action. They may just have needed to act a little less afraid. For a zillion reasons, they were afraid. They desperately wanted peace. Chamberlain was a hero. But as Churchill said, he chose dishonor over war, and got both.

    The book doesn’t explore how good the British intelligence was on Hitler’s economic desperation. If they had been informed, they would have known that letting him take Czechoslovakia was a fundamental error. It wasn’t just the Brits, though. If the results weren’t so horrific, there’d be a pleasureful irony, or sense of just deserts, in what eventually happened to the Poles, who not only failed to resist, but urged the Germans on, then took their own piece of land during the settlement.

    What the book does explore is the tragic indifference of Chamberlain and Halifax to the German opposition, members of which at great personal risk struggled but failed to convince them that the Hitler could be brought down. At one point they were within a day of launching the coup. It’s enough to make you go all Pastor Hagee on it all and think God was determined to make use of Hitler.

    @ narciso:
    Or maybe it was all Lodge’s fault for defeating Wilson on the League of Nations. Or maybe it was God again for giving Wilson a stroke.

  16. A progressive academic with little executive experience, with an ahistorical mindset, pushes through a piece of legislation that the
    populace is not in favor of; this is what Glenn Reynolds would call
    a bug not a feature

  17. CK MacLeod wrote:
    @ Rex Caruthers:
    Your pessimism is too extreme,

    Nothing to do with Emotions, we had a long general expansion/1971-to 2007 with some dips,we are now in a contraction(fact,not in dispute),the length&depth of this contraction is being played out among a lot of contradictory expert opinion.

  18. The back to back oil shocks of the 1970s, along with the removal of wage and price controls, made the 70s, an interesting era for music
    but a strange one to live through

  19. @ CK MacLeod:

    All good logic; but these points have been covered many, many times. In hindsight the logic behind British, French, Polish, American, etc. inaction is impossible to credit. But then in hindsight the failure to send a few thousand troops to get between the Hutus and the Tutsis is inexplicable.

    As to then allied awareness of the real state of the German economy, with all our satellites and signals intel and such we thought the Soviets were ten feet tall economically and technologically until the system basically collapsed of its own weight. And we still think North Korea is ten feet tall militarily even though in logic the breaches of artillery pieces unfired for forty years are most probably painted shut, or else inoperable because brass and bronze pieces have been removed and sold as scrap.

  20. It’s not really that hard at least from a European perspective, as Ferguson points out in “Pity of WAr” a purported victor like the UK
    lost an entire generation in the battlefield, for what the media ended up representing as a confused cause, the French had mutinies toward
    the end of the war, then again with the likes of Nivelle and Foch, maybe they were do that, The Russian experience toppled the regime in charge, Of course Iraq in the popular imagination has been painted
    as worse than Vietnam, the Civil War, et al; hence the skiddishness
    of the major players against Iran

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